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Tony Preview and Maunderings 2015 — Part Two

images (13)BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL: Victoria Clark in “Gigi;” Judy Kuhn in “Fun Home;” Sydney Lucas in “Fun Home;” Ruthie Ann Miles in “The King and I;” Emily Skeggs in “Fun Home” — Obviously the part to have if you a 2015 Tony nomination is Alison in “Fun Home.” All three performers who play it received a nod, although I think more charitable (and realistic) scoring would have left an opening for “Something Rotten’s” Heidi Blickenstaff and “An American in Paris’s” Veanne Cox and Jill Paice in this category.

Especially since the unnominated Paice is Broadway’s Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for 2015.

Sydney Lucas is a child, and while her youngest of Alisons is pivotal to revealing all of father’s unsavory traits, Lucas does not have the poise or intensity to be in this category at the expense of Blickenstaff, Cox, or Paice.

Victoria Clark is incapable of being anything less than sterling, and as she did in “Cinderella,” she brings polish and humanity to “Gigi.”

Ruthie Ann Miles turns the gorgeous “Something Wonderful” into a special treat. In some years, that would be enough to secure her the Tony.

But this isn’t some years. It’s a year when Broadway shows were crowded with wonderful supporting turns, and the Tony comes down to the two widely divergent performances of Judy Kuhn, as the put-upon mother, and Emily Skeggs as the middle Alison, seen at about age 18 in “Fun Home.”

Except for sentimentality, there is really no contest. Skeggs outshines all of the nominees in her field, Kuhn and Miles among them.

Of the three Alison’s has the most conflict. She has left home to attend college and is embarking on adulthood, including sexuality. While you see Skeggs pray her Alison will not be Lesbian, attraction is to the contrary, especially when she meets a campus activist, Joan, to whom Skeggs sings a paean that is the single best and most entertaining song in Jeannine Tesori’s score for “Fun Home.”

Although the actress has an accent that belies New York, Pennsylvania, or East Coast roots, she shows a wide range as Alison while maintaining a confused, nervous state that has much to do with her sexual revelations and her strategizing about how to break the news to her parent about Lesbianism and Joan. (Not that either parents finds Alison’s announcement particularly surprising.

Skeggs is the Alison with personality., She is a whirlwind of thought as she tries to sort out of a number of things, including her relationship to her father who is more paternal and more sentimental from a distance, especially because he keeps sending her books to read, critique, and discuss with him. Alison hits college age in the late 1960s, so it’s a time of upheaval and charged with social and political causes.

The best part of Skeggs’s performance is how natural it is. The actress is so convincing as a newly emancipated teenager discovering a world that comes at her quickly and from all angles.

In the midst of conveying youthful zeal, Skeggs lets you see Alison’s quandaries, especially the disappointment and angst she feels when neither her father nor mother respond for weeks to her letter declaring she is gay and having an active relationship with a woman.

While maintaining one tone and mood, Skeggs skillfully conveys a range of emotions. Her Alison is ball of energy who is also sensitive and observant. This Alison is the most complete character in “Fun Home” (if not as complex as the father). You clearly see the adult Lucas’s Alison is becoming and the assured, controlled woman Beth Malone’s Alison will become. For a Broadway debut, this is an auspicious one, and Skeggs could well walk home with a Tony for her first mainstem venture.

Judy Kuhn seems almost wasted in “Fun Home” until she launches into a big late-in-the-show number in which she rails musically about all she has gone through as a wife and mother. Kuhn’s Helen Bechdel is a spectator. She stays in her own little world while her sociopath husband tends to the children, mostly in outwardly loving ways that turn sour when he decides to dictate standards or take out whatever sadness or frustration he is feeling on the kids. Helen wants distance from the truth, especially about her daughter.

Kuhn’s one big number does not trump Skeggs’s consistent carrying of “Fun Home,” but Kuhn’s status as a Broadway favorite who has never been honored with a Tony might speak volumes.

She is a deserving critic’s darling who also has a fan base among the cognoscenti. That could net her an award that should more fittingly go to her co-star.

           Prediction: Judy Kuhn Preference: Emily Skeggs

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Christian Borle in “Something Rotten!;” Andy Karl in “On the Twentieth Century;” Brad Oscar in “Something Rotten!;” Brandon Uranowitz in ‘An American in Paris;” Max von Essen in “An American in Paris” — Another great category. This group is so strong, I would like to make room for Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves from “On the Town” and John Cariani from “Something Rotten!,” and there’s just no room for them. I can’t think of which nominee I would eliminate. And what about dancer John Riddle from “The Visit?” Hubba! Hubba! Supporting men have had a great year on Broadway.

Among all of this excellence, two of the nominees stand out from the others. They are Brad Oscar and Max von Essen.

Watching “An American in Paris” for the first time, I had that radar-like instinct that said von Essen had the Tony clinched. His portrayal of Henri Baurel is a symphony of moods, and in the course of “American,” Christopher Wheeldon insists Henri make quick emotional changes.

NealBoxThen bug-eyed and looking half mad as Thomas Nostradamus, a soothsayer who is great nephew to the notable Nostradamus, Brad Oscar bursts upon “Something Rotten’s” scenes, and bravura magic happens. All of von Essen’s versatility and sensitivity gets trounced by Oscar’s witty, irrepressible bravura.

Watching Oscar have his spasmodic revelations is a treat. Each time he received an augury about the future of theatrical entertainment, Nostradamus’s enthusiasm is renewed. It’s brilliant and hilarious when Oscar, as through a haze, says, “I see cats, lots and lots of dancing and singing cats” while castmate Brian D’Arcy James looks at him as if he’s crazy or having some late drug hallucination. Oscar doesn’t accept his pessimism or disbelief. “Hit! Big, big hit!,” he predicts as James’s Nick Bottom stares in incredulous terror.

Once more there’s no way to compare these diametrically opposed characters and performances.

Von Essen’s Henri is subtle and refined and endowed with a continental savoir faire that makes him a constant gentleman and a congenial companion.

Henri can be austerely respectable to his parents when discussing family business. He also has a secret yen to be a nightclub entertainer, and von Essen, taking cues from Wheeldon, never lets you see the guilt in his pleasure.

One minute, Henri can be working out some pricing for his parents’ mill, the next he can be looking at songs to use in a cabaret act he is assembling. Wheeldon even puts von Essen in a remarkable sequence in which his character falters as the beginning of his big act and then collects himself and comes on strongly and grandly in a fantasy of the number he’s supposed to be doing on a Paris stage.

Oscar’s character can’t afford facets. He’s about as direct and restless as you can get. Once primed to conjure images of what is to be, Oscar can’t wait to tell everyone his or her fate. He is particularly challenged and fascinated by all he sees as the future of the theater. Once Nostradamus sees more and more details about the musical, Oscar goes about telling the news with ever increasing abandonment and enthusiasm.

Usually, I stronger favor the nuanced and finessed over the zealous and bombastic, but in Oscar’s case, I can’t. He plays Nostradamus for what he is, a man inspired. Size and ebullience might be all Oscar needs, as opposed to the different moods and levels of contentment, or disappointment, von Essen is called upon to display. But Oscar does his prognosticating with gusto, and “Something Rotten!” is such a good and witty romp because of it.

Brandon Uranowitz won’t fall quietly by wayside. His performance as a lovelorn composer who comes in third in a three-way romantic rivalry for Lise, has touching moments, and while Uranowitz doesn’t try to take on the persona or attitude of Oscar Levant, to whom his character pays homage, he can be quick and funny with a rejoinder or self-deprecating remark.

Andy Karl also rates recognition as the obtuse but devilishly handsome matinee idol, Bruce Granit, in “On the Twentieth Century.” Karl’s performance is as comically physical as Oscar’s is comically overflowing and von Essen’s is choreographically physical. In any other year, Karl might stand a strong chance for the Tony, but he outmatched by Oscar and von Essen, and I don’t see him overcoming that.

Christian Borle, like Judy Kuhn, is a Broadway favorite and an actor whose appearances on “Smash” and in NBC’s “The Sound of Music” give him public familiarity his competitors do not have.

Borle is fun as a conceited and larcenous Shakespeare in “Something Rotten!,” but he plays his part by the book. He doesn’t take his part out of the realm of the expected like Oscar, von Essen, Uranowitz, and Karl do. His Shakespeare is proud and entertaining, but he is not special or memorable. Thinking about it again, I would take Borle’s nomination and bestow it on “On the Town’s” Jay Armstrong Johnson, and favor that actor, adorable as an excited sailor leave over even Oscar or von Essen.

In analyzing the field, I am going to split my vote. Von Essen has so much to do and does it so and so fusslessly, I think he will impress the most Tony voters. Oscar is so deliciously big and manic, he also seems difficult to resist as a deserving Tony recipient.

           Prediction: Max von Essen Preference: Brad Oscar

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL: Sam Gold for “Fun Home;” Casey Nicholaw for “Something Rotten!;” John Rando for “On the Town,” Bartlett Sher for “The King and I;” Christopher Wheeldon for “An American in Paris” — Though my heart belongs to Rando, I follow my head in making predictions, and I don’t see how Christopher Wheeldon can be denied the Tony for Best Director this season.

“An American in Paris” combines so many more elements than any other musical. In addition to the usual ingredients, Wheeldon has crafted sumptuous ballets while supplying numerous standard production numbers. He can be lyrical with “Liza,” creatively witty with “Fidgety Feet,” and magnificently grand with “Concerto in F” and the “An American in Paris” ballet, and he has combined projections that evoke Paris with abstract set pieces (allegedly designed by Robert Fairchild’s character, Jerry Mulligan) to give a taste of various periods and forms within art. He presents a mature story that has many instances of whimsy and lightness.

“An American in Paris” is a creation as well as an achievement. Missy Anna’s boat coming right through the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the art deco fun of “On the Twentieth Century,” and the lovable, laudable shenanigans in “Something Rotten!” mark great directorial vision and accomplishment, but Wheeldon takes matters further than his colleagues. They work wonders, but he astounds.

John Rando’s vivacious “On the Town'” is about the only work that is competitive against Wheeldon’s this year. His “On the Town” is a gem, just as Nicholaw’s “Something Rotten!” is an entertainment feast, but Wheeldon provides a five-course gourmet meal while his rivals serve rich and frothy dessert.

           Prediction: Christopher Wheeldon Preference: Christopher Wheeldon

BEST CHOREOGRAPY: Joshua Bergasse for “On the Town;” Christopher Gatelli for “The King and I;” Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time;” Casey Nicholaw for “Something Rotten!;” Christopher Wheeldon for “An American in Paris” — Gentlemen, gentlemen, you are all so superb, I don’t know how they can’t make Choreography a mass award for 2015.

Bergasse makes “On the Town” such a happy and lively experience with his inventiveness, sense of fun, and breakneck dance pace. Nicholaw is amazing at making the funny funnier yet through his dances. Graham and Hoggett add greatly to the spirit of “Curious Incident,” a non-musical with their attention to movement. Gatelli finds sweep and elegance in the dance score for “The King and I.”

2015, however, is the domain of Christopher Wheeldon. He worked hard to conceive a production. He worked harder and more successfully at trimming and honing his creation “An American in Paris” will be the overwhelming choice in this category, not matter how many stops Josh Bergasse pulled out to make “On the Town” the thrilling delight it is.

           Prediction: Christopher Wheeldon Preference: Christopher Wheeldon

BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL — “The King and I,” “On the Town,” “On the Twentieth Century” — Yowza, yowza, this is a fine group. All three of these productions are revived in a way that makes them fell new. The choice is difficult because all three productions are so marvelously entertaining and chocked with delight.

“On the Town” takes the energy surge you feel just by being in New York and increases it exponentially. Everything about this show is so perfect, even the stylization that helps establish a 1940’s format, it is easily the show I would recommend for people who want to take in a Broadway offering while they’re visiting America’s Metropolis.

‘On the Twentieth Century” is a smart production that matches the size of its egoistic leads and features oodles on fine small performances by Broadway stalwarts like Jim Walton and Mary Louise Wilson.

“The King a I” is done in an opulent style that is immediately appreciated and savored.

         Prediction: The King and I Preference: On the Town

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE OF A MUSICAL: Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron for “Fun Home;” Sting for “The Last Ship;” Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick for “Something Rotten!;” John Kander and Fred Ebb for “The Visit,” — “Fun Home” is full of songs, but they all sound like rants and exposition for me. Kander and Ebb have wonderful production and fine exposition sequences in “The Visit.” I especially like a cynical number that congratulates conformity, “Yellow Shoes,”

It’s clear if you consider them back-to-back, the Kirkpatricks should take the prize for best score. I would also give Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell the Tony for best book. Their never-ending wit and gift for being funny trumps even Craig Lucas in that category.

         Prediction: Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron Preference: Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick
         Prediction for Book: Craig Lucas Preference for Book; Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell

       In design categories for musicals, I predict and prefer Bob Crowley, Benjamin Pearcy, and Leo Warner for set design for “An American in Paris” although I also admire David Rockwell’s work for “On the Twentieth Century.” I predict Natasha Katz will receive the Tony for Best Lighting for “An American in Paris.” I prefer for the award to go to Japhy Weideman for “The Visit.” The Best Costume award will probably also find its way to Bob Crowley for “An American in Paris.” My preference is for Gregg Barnes to receive it for “Something Rotten!”

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